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Using a Bible
What Catholics Should Know
If you are like many people, the Bible is at once an old friend and a stranger.
You recognize it easily, as you would an old friend, and trust it as a companion. You know
that it contains a record of God's sacred word to humanity. You take comfort in knowing
that you can pick it up at any time and find something in it of value. Yet go into a bookstore
to buy a Bible and most Catholics are somewhat at a loss. There are so many choices, even
in a Catholic bookstore! And if some of your friends or neighbors include non-Catholics
you'll see all sorts of Bible versions from one family to another. What does such a variety
mean? Where did the versions come from?
In this Update we'll take a look at some of the issues involved in
choosing the right Bible for yourself. We'll also try to give good background information
on the many versions available today. And we'll also provide some tips on using your Bible
for study and prayer.
A family tradition
Many people have a Bible in their home. Sometimes the Bible is a family heirloom.
Perhaps grandparents or great-grandparents had a family Bible that passes from generation
to generation. Often people record in their Bibles important family events, especially
the dates of weddings, funerals, Baptisms and the like. While these are family keepsakes,
the particular translation of the Bible may not be suitable for contemporary Bible study
and prayer. The reason for this judgment lies in the nature of language.
The Bible was written originally in Hebrew and Greek. Obviously, for most
of us to access the Bible we must use translations. The King James Version of the Bible
(Authorized Version) is the most common authoritative translation in use by many Protestants.
The difficulty is that this 16th-century translation is woefully outdated.
Not only do we no longer speak the style of English employed in this translation,
but also biblical scholarship has advanced considerably in the knowledge of the ancient
biblical languages to warrant new translations. Many Catholics in earlier decades also
relied on an older edition of the Bible, the Douay-Rheims translation, based upon the Latin
translation (the Vulgate) that at one time was the only official Catholic edition of the
Bible. It, too, is out of date and the names of some of the Old Testament books may be
If some of you are still relying upon one of these or another older Bible
edition, I recommend that you buy a newer edition. People frequently ask me, "Which is
the best translation?" My response is to ask, in turn, "For what purpose?" You see, there
is no best edition as such. It depends on what use you want to make of the Bible.
Choosing the right Bible
Which version is the best for you? It depends on whether you want it primarily
for prayer, for study, for Sunday school classes, to take to Church to follow the sermon
or for other purposes. Any of the listed translations would do, though you will likely
hear only one translation, the New American Bible, proclaimed during Mass.
Like people, the translations come in different sizes and shapes. Some are
hardback, some are paperback. Some, that we can call study Bibles, are large with supplementary
notes, cross-references or comments, and others are pocket editions. They can be found
in most bookstores.
Rather than recommending a specific Bible, I provide (see box below, "Modern
Bible Translations") the most common editions currently available. You do not need to have
an expensive edition. Bibles with gilded edges and suave leather covers are lovely as gifts
but are not essential to Bible prayer or study. Most important is having a modern edition
of the Bible that makes you comfortable.
If you feel you can handle a study Bible edition, it will be a bit thicker
and heavier, but it will also contain lots of other information that you will find helpful
for more intensive Bible study.
Some Tips for Reading, Praying
and Studying the Bible
Reading your Bible
Don't begin at the beginning or end. Begin with the familiar. For
Christians the New Testament is a better place to start than the Old Testament. Perhaps
begin with Mark, the shortest Gospel, or the letters of Paul. Do not start with
the Book of Revelation, a complex and symbolic book.
Read sections rather than sentences. The Bible will make more sense
if you pay attention to sections that are grouped together.
Read aloud. Everyone used to do it, especially when the books of the
Bible were written. The Bible was meant to be heard—it originated as an oral tradition.
Reading aloud involves you more completely than reading silently.
Studying your Bible
Read the introductions. Most Bibles have introductions added by the
editors, and they will prepare you for what comes next. Read the introduction first!
Read the footnotes. The Bible often contains material that is very
foreign to our world. Customs, terms, symbolic names, etc., often require explanation.
The footnotes are there for everyone, not just for scholars.
Use the cross-references. Most Bibles place these references to other
biblical passages in the footnotes or on the side of the page. Often New Testament passages
contain quotations or allusions to Old Testament passages. These cross-references will
help you further understand what you are studying. This takes some time, but your reward
will be a richer understanding of the text.
Be flexible in your interpretations. You don't need to be afraid of
misinterpreting the Bible if you remember that your interpretation is not necessarily the interpretation.
This is especially good in a group setting: Sharing ideas about Bible passages is a wonderful
way of studying the Bible, especially when you remain open to further guidance about your
views. The ideal group would have a leader with some professional experience, or who has
taken time to carefully learn and prepare a historical or scientific perspective.
Praying your Bible outside of Mass
Invoke the Holy Spirit. Every time you sit down to pray with the Bible
I suggest you begin with a brief prayer to call upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Something
as simple as "Come, Holy Spirit, be my guide as I try to understand this word" reminds
us that we need to surrender to God in order to understand the Word properly.
Choose a passage to reflect on. Working through the whole book of
the Bible prayerfully is more effective than random interpretations. Another way of doing
this is to pray along with the lectionary selections for the upcoming Sunday Mass. That
can help you prepare to hear the Word more fruitfully when it is proclaimed and preached
upon the following Sunday. In three years' time, you'll have prayed along with most of
Read the passage once through fully. Getting the big picture first
helps you understand each section or passage better.
Read each section of the passage slowly. Slow, meditative reading
is an ancient Christian practice known as lectio divina. Sitting with the text,
mulling over its words and phrases and soaking in its images or themes, truly brings one
to a prayerful understanding. Let the words sink in, and you will feel yourself in the
presence of God.
Use your imagination. Although this approach may not work for every
passage, it can be very prayerful for some. Imagine yourself in the text. Where are you?
Are there characters with whom you identify? Do you see yourself in any actions?
Reread the entire passage. Once you have spent time reflecting on
some sections of a passage, reread it in its entirety. Though some parts may have spoken
to you more clearly, this exercise will help you remember to keep the section in context.
Conclude with a prayer of thanksgiving. Thank God for the gift of
the Word as you conclude your prayer exercise. It is God's Word that gives us life.
Revised Standard Version
New Revised Standard Version
New International Version
(International Bible Society, 1984). This version is intended
to be ecumenical and to appeal to a broad range of English-speaking people. The translation
is considered somewhat more conservative than the New Revised Standard Version. Its
language is suitable for private study and for public reading. There is no Catholic
New American Bible with revised New Testament and Psalms
New Jerusalem Bible
Revised English Bible
Good News translation
Reader's Digest Bible
New Testament and Psalms:
An Inclusive Language Version
Ronald D. Witherup is a priest of the Society of St. Sulpice (S.S.).
He is formerly Academic Dean and Professor at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park,
California. He is currently provincial of the U.S. Province of Sulpicians in Baltimore,
Maryland. This Update is adapted from his book The Bible Companion: A Handbook
for Beginners (Crossroad, 1998). His other books include Biblical Fundamentalism:
What Every Catholic Should Know (Liturgical Press, 2001) and, most recently, 101
Questions & Answers on Paul (Paulist, 2003).
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